The Chevrolet Camaro turned 55 this year, one of the last of a vanishing breed of American muscle cars that once ruled the roads. Conceived as an inexpensive rival to the upstart Ford Mustang, the Camaro earned a loyal following of its own with iconic models such as the Super Sport, the Z-28, and the IROC-Z. Cheapism sat down with Harlan Charles, the Camaro product marketing manager at General Motors (and a longtime Camaro fan himself) to talk about this legendary vehicle and what makes it so special.
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Chevrolet was already selling the sporty Corvair and had plans for a souped-up version of the Nova when Ford introduced the Mustang in 1964. It was relatively cheap, very fast, and soaringly popular with buyers, especially baby boomers. “Seeing the success of the Mustang, [GM] decided we needed a unique car to take it head on,” Charles says. Like the Mustang, Chevrolet relied primarily on parts it already had on hand (mostly from the Nova II) to quickly construct what would become the first-generation model Camaro.
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Chevrolet unveiled the Camaro in September 1966. The car carried a base price of $2,466 (about $22,043 today) and offered a wide range of options, including a choice of 15 exterior colors, eight interior colors, and seven stripes of V6 and V8 engines. The concept was simple: Build a performance car for the masses and make it look good. “The Camaro’s always had a unique image and unique style,” Charles says. “You can spot it right away.” Body styles for the ’67 Camaro included a convertible model, as well as the top-of-the-line SS coupe, which boasted a 350-cubic-inch V8 engine producing a whopping 295 horsepower. A sales brochure from the era promised drivers “wide stance stability and big-car power.”
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In addition to an AM/FM radio, air conditioning, and a tachometer, buyers have had some less typical options when it came time to custom order. The 1967 model, for instance, could be ordered with a fold-down rear seat. Unlike today’s cars, the Camaro’s folding seatback didn’t reveal an opening to the trunk to expand cargo storage; it merely folded forward to create a level surface for bulky items, limiting its usefulness. The 1969 Camaro was available with the “liquid aerosol tire chain”: just push a button on the dashboard, and the rear tires would be bathed in an aerosol spray of de-icer from canisters mounted above the wheel wells.
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Camaro wasn’t Chevrolet’s first name for its new vehicle. For much of its development, Charles says, the vehicle was referred to as Project Panther. In June 1966, ahead of the car’s release, Chevrolet sent a press release to journalists from the mythical “Society for the Eradication of Panthers from the Automotive World,” inviting them to join a 14-city conference call. During that call — the first coast-to-coast conference call of its kind — Chevrolet General Manager Pete Estes described the new vehicle in detail, ending by unveiling the car’s new name: Camaro. The word itself doesn’t mean anything, though Estes said he chose it because he thought it meant “friend” or “pal.” (It also kept with Chevy’s tradition of giving its vehicles names beginning with C.)
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To promote its new sports car, Chevrolet created a two-minute TV commercial that depicted the top-of-the-line Camaro SS 350 emerging from an erupting volcano. “Camaro! It’s something else!” the narrator exclaims as very fake-looking boulders tumble and clouds of smoke waft around the vehicle amid flashing lights and sounds of explosions.
The second-generation Camaro rolled into showrooms for the 1970 model year as a sleek fastback, but GM engineers had planned a station wagon model, too. The Camaro Kammback made it as far as the prototype stage — along with plans for an even funkier Pontiac Firebird version with rear gullwing windows — before GM execs decided the cars had too limited appeal to make them worth making. General Motors had toyed with the idea of a Camaro station wagon as early as 1967 and would revive the idea in the ’80s, but it never made it past the concept stage. “I think the concept was to build a more functional version,” Charles says. “But I don’t think those plans ever got close to production.”
Like other fast cars, the Camaro has inspired its share of pop songs over the years. The first was “Camaro” by The Cyrkle, a trio best known for the hit “Red Rubber Ball.” The song was commissioned by GM to promote the vehicle at Chevy dealerships. Unfortunately, the band’s appeal didn’t last as long as the car being sung about — The Cyrkle broke up in 1967. Other Chevy-inspired songs include “Bitchin’ Camaro” by The Dead Milkmen, “Go Lil’ Camaro, Go” by The Ramones, and “Red Camaro” by Rascal Flatts.
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In the 2007 film “Transformers,” Shia LaBeouf’s character breaks the bank to buy a beat-up yellow mid-1970s Camaro. “I wanted this to be the crummiest Camaro possible from the worst year possible,” the film’s production designer, Jeff Mann, told Inside Line. “After all, theoretically the kid buys it for $4,000 and his friends give him crap about it.” That beater of a car turns out to be a superhero robot in disguise named Bumblebee (who transforms again into a much cooler 2010 Camaro later on in the film).
The Camaro was a hit from the start, selling more than 221,000 vehicles in the first year alone. Sales peaked in 1979, when Americans bought 282,571 Camaros. That’s a far cry from 2018, when just under 51,000 Camaros were sold in the United States. It looks confirmed that General Motors will kill the car off after the 2024 model year as the company pares back production and moves into an all-electric future.
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Chevy celebrated the Camaro’s 35th anniversary with a special-edition model for 2002, but it wasn’t a happy birthday. Citing declining sales, General Motors announced that 2002 would be the end of the road for the Camaro and its sibling, the Pontiac Firebird. The final Camaro to roll off the assembly line, a Z28, sold at a charity auction for about $70,000. But Camaro’s legions of fans wouldn’t let it go. “The clamoring from enthusiasts, inside the company and outside of the company, was really great,” Charles says. “Let’s resurrect the Camaro in the spirit of the original. We did this great concept that was shown in 2006 … and the reaction was just so over the top, we knew we had to get this back into production.” Just four years later, GM began testing the waters for Camaro’s return, and the sports car returned as a 2010 model.
Despite its sporty appearance, the Chevrolet Camaro’s performance hasn’t always been as smokin’. The 1968 model equipped with an inline six-cylinder engine took a leisurely 13.8 seconds to go from zero to 60 mph, according to Motor Trend, the slowest Camaro it’s tested. By contrast, the 2012 ZL1 Camaro (packed with a 6.2-liter V8 engine) was a rocket. It needed just 3.8 seconds on the test track to hit 60 mph.
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For the 2010 holiday season, upscale retailer Neiman Marcus commissioned Chevrolet to make 100 custom-engineered convertible Camaro S22s. “It reintroduced the convertible to the Camaro line,” Charles says. The cars featured a signature “deep Bordeaux” paint job, leather upholstery and interior accents, and a 6.2-liter V8 engine. The price? A mere $75,000. Neiman Marcus sold out in less than five minutes.
So does Harlan Charles, who’s been with General Motors for 30-plus years, have a favorite Camaro? “Obviously, we love the new ones the best,” he says. Speaking as someone whose first car was an ’82 Camaro, Charles adds that while he can’t pick just a single favorite, one comes close: “My second car was an ’84 Z28 high-output 5-liter. If you look at performance from today’s standards, it’s slow. But back in those days in the ’80s I thought I was king of the road.”
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